Preserved Lemons

           Every little Mom and Pop provisions shop around Tunis carries a few staples that a mother could send her 11 year old to fetch as she’s making dinner and realizes she’s missing a key ingredient.  There will always be canned tomatoes, tuna, a big variety of pasta and couscous for a little store, eggs, butter, and a few cheeses, olive oil, a variety of cured olives, and preserved lemons.  When I moved here, I intended to be all about using preserved lemon, but, as with the olives, while the store-bought ones are nicely flavored, I wonder how they have been prepared and handled.  How many times has the brine been reused?  Thinking about that puts me off a little.  Preserving my own olives turned out to not be so hard.  Preserving lemons takes just a few minutes to get started and about a month till you’re in the gold.
           My teaching partner and I have a shared hobby around the study and discovery of salt.  It began when we developed a unit to teach our students about the impact of salt on the entire history of the world, an ambitious unit.  In the process of our study, we both became energized on the subject. Richard gave me one of the most beautiful gifts I think I’ve ever received:  a copy of Mark Bitterman’s impassioned “manifesto” (his subtitle) on the subject of salt, titled Salted, along with a small collection of about 16 of the earth’s rarest salts.  Becoming educated about salt is going to be an ongoing pursuit and Richard and I are going to meet up in Portland this summer to visit Mark’s specialty shop, rather his temple to salt, to continue that process.
           Following is the recipe for preserved lemons from Salted which yields about 1 quart.
  • 8 large lemons, scrubbed clean
  • About 3 cups rock sea salt (This is my modification.  Mark calls for sel gris and maybe after I visit his store next summer I will be able to indulge in such a quantity of  specialty salt, but for today, it will be nice-enough Tunisian sea salt.)
  • 8 juniper berries (optional)
  • Fresh lemon juice, as needed
Cut the tips off the ends of the lemons.  Cut each lemon into quarters lengthwise leaving them attached at one end.  Pack the lemons with a much salt as they will hold.  Insert one juniper berry into each lemon.
Put the lemons in a sterilized wide-mouth quart-size jar, packing them in as tightly as possible.  As you push the lemons into the jar, some juice will be squeezed from them.  When the jar is full, the juice should cover the lemons; if it doesn’t, add fresh lemon juice.
Seal the jar and set aside for 3-4 weeks, until the lemon rinds become soft, shaking the jar every day to keep the salt well distributed.  The lemons should be covered with juice at all times;  add more as needed.  Rinse the lemons before using.
 What the heck do you use preserved lemons for?  
            Fair question.  I have to say that this is a condiment you have to just try and discover the quality it gives to dishes.  It is not brightly lemony.  It does taste deeply of lemon, but without the tart edge.  It bears a saltiness, but you rinse it before use so the salt is in good balance.  Once you try it in a few dishes, I wager you will start to crave the flavor depth it can provide.  I put preserved lemons in a category with anchovies.  While they both contribute depth of flavor and a little mystery to a dish, they don’t make it taste straight-up fishy or lemony.   Here are some suggestions from my favorite food magazine, Cuisine, which is published in New Zealand.

In small quantities, preserved lemons add a little zing to tapenades as well as a refreshing flavor to couscous, lentil or quinoa salads. The liquid from the jar can also be used in dressings. 

Preserved lemons transform yoghurt or mayonnaise to be used as a dressing and, finely chopped, add flavor to a tomato and cilantro salsa to accompany fish. 

Add a dressing of extra virgin olive oil and finely chopped preserved lemon peel to cooked, warmed lentils or beans along with plenty of watercress or arugula.   Serve with crumbled feta or as an accompaniment for grilled lamb. 

Make a flavored butter by adding finely chopped preserved lemon, garlic and chives to softened butter. Spread under a chicken skin before roasting or serve atop a piece of fried fish. 

Finish a seafood risotto with finely chopped preserved lemon or add to a gremolata, along with finely chopped parsley and garlic, to finish a braise of beef or lamb. 

Add slivers of preserved lemons to vegetables before roasting. Or blanch and sauté broccoli or cauliflower in olive oil with garlic then add slivers of preserved lemon and some pitted olives. 

Make a tagine of lamb or chicken by browning the meat then adding chopped onions, garlic, slivers of preserved lemons, cumin seeds, a few chopped tomatoes, fresh cilantro and a little stock or water. Preserved lemons will also enliven all kinds of other casseroles.